Camp Fire is most destructive wildfire in California history: 9 dead, 6,713 structures incinerated

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PARADISE, Butte County — The Camp Fire that devastated this bucolic Butte County town has claimed the lives of at least nine people, grown to 90,000 acres and destroyed more buildings than any other wildfire in California history.

By Friday evening, the fire had incinerated 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings in and around Paradise. The blaze was only about 5 percent contained and was threatening another 15,000 structures. Some 52,000 people remained evacuated from various towns. Authorities expect the death toll to increase in the coming days.

Before the Camp Fire, last year’s 36,807-acre Tubbs Fire was the most destructive wildfire in state history for destroying 5,636 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties. Twenty-two people died in that fire.

The nine people killed in the Camp Fire included four victims found in vehicles burned by the blaze in the area of Edgewood Lane, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Another individual was found outside a vehicle there. Three bodies were found outside homes and one was found inside a home. None of the victims has been identified.

In addition to the lives lost, three firefighters have been injured.

It took less than 48 hours for the Camp Fire to hit historic levels of devastation. The worst of the destruction was in Paradise, a town of 27,000 about 90 miles north of Sacramento that was overwhelmed by flames so quickly that many residents were barely able to grab car keys in their rush to escape.

It was only as the sun came up Friday that the full scope of the damage was exposed.

The burned walls of churches poked through ash. The blackened skeletons of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and supermarkets wobbled amid strong winds. Block after block, entire neighborhoods lay in ruin. Abandoned cars, charred to their frames, lined the two-lane roads in and out of town.

Beneath the smoke-filled sky, sheriff’s deputies continued to search for bodies amid the rubble while residents, scattered across the region at evacuation centers or in the homes of family and friends, wondered how they could possibly recover from such loss.

“I guess there won’t be much of my town left,” said Scott Lotter, a Paradise Town Council member and former mayor. “It’s too soon to tell how much we’ve lost.”

The cause of the fire, which started Thursday morning, remains under investigation, but Pacific Gas and Electric Co. informed regulators Friday that a high-voltage power line near the area experienced a problem prior to the first flames.

Meteorologists were anticipating a lull in the extreme fire conditions Friday night to Saturday afternoon, but the winds were expected to pick up again Saturday and continue through the weekend.

The number of people battling the blaze increased to 3,223 by Friday evening, the 67 fire crews helped by 440 fire engines and 23 helicopters, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. Help was requested from nearby states, including Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Washington.

“We are at a pivotal moment,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Todd Derum. “We are trying to take advantage of this moment and make the most progress we can. But the red flag warnings will come. It will kick this fire up, start new fires, or a combination of both.”

Dense smoke blanketed much of Northern California, including the Bay Area, nearly 200 miles away, where air quality was so bad that flights were canceled at San Francisco International Airport and residents were advised to stay indoors.

The blaze “has been an extremely challenging fire and has resulted in significant and catastrophic loss in that community,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “We are literally in a statewide red flag weather. We are basically looking at a very significant dangerous weather pattern through the rest of this weekend.”

Named the Camp Fire because of its proximity to Camp Creek Road near Highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon, the inferno started at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and quickly barreled through Paradise.

Many of the evacuees had to leave without cell phones or identification, and have had difficulties reconnecting with friends and family. On social media, scores of people have posted photos and last known addresses of missing relatives, many of them older or disabled individuals who may have had a hard time evacuating on their own.

Officials did not not have any immediate numbers on how many people were unaccounted for, though the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said it had 35 official missing person reports. The American Red Cross issued an alert for residents to register as “safe and well” on its website.

“I’m pretty sure my home is burned to the ground,” said Debbie Teter, 53, who was at work at her real estate office Thursday before she hastily evacuated to nearby Chico. “I’m pretty sure I won’t have a job either. My workplace is probably gone and selling property just won’t be happening.

“At my age,” she added, “I don’t want to have to start from scratch.”

The tree-lined houses and familiar shops and businesses that made Paradise a draw for retirees and a magnet for lifelong residents were hardly recognizable after the flames tore through town. Most of the business district along Skyway, the main drag, and the surrounding neighborhoods of single-family homes were burned.

Only the street-side signs of a Burger King and Jack in the Box revealed what the nearby piles of twisted steel and soot had once been. The First Assembly of God church and a Mormon church were charred. The Atria Paradise retirement community was destroyed. A few motels, a muffler shop and a used car lot were among the many other losses.

“The magnitude of the destruction we are seeing is really unbelievable and heartbreaking,” Ghilarducci said. “Our hearts go out to everybody who’s been affected by this.”

Some residents already were talking about rebuilding their tight-knit community. Others, though, were less confident. They’d lost not only homes, but the places where they shopped, got a cup of coffee or met friends for lunch. Many people said they wouldn’t know how to begin to recover what they’d lost.

Donny Veteto, 43, had moved to Paradise only a month ago. The home in which he’d rented a room burned down while he was at work in Chico. He was lucky — he happened to be driving his motor home that day — but he lost everything else.

“I’d like to go back to Paradise, but I don’t know when that will happen,” Veteto said. “Nobody can go back right now.”

Lotter, the former mayor, evacuated with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, along with their pet rabbit and two dogs. As he drove away with his family, flames were just 50 feet from City Hall, Lotter said. It took him nearly two hours to go a half-mile.

He learned on Friday that he’d lost his home to the fire, and found little consolation in news that the movie theater he owns in town survived. He said it was easier to count the number of homes and businesses that were untouched than those that were destroyed.

“If you have a perfectly good business in the middle of a desert, it really doesn’t do you any good,” Lotter said.

Butte County schools were closed Friday and will remain so through Nov. 23, according to the county Office of Education. Officials said they need time to assess the damage to school buildings and determine how best to support families affected by the fire.

November is remarkably late in the fire season for such an intense blaze, fire officials said. And at least two more massive fires were threatening communities in Southern California, including one that forced evacuation of the entire city of Malibu. The late-season wildfires fueled by dry conditions represent California’s new normal, officials said.

“Every day is fire season somewhere in California,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said.

Bob Schofield, 54, has lived in the Paradise area for 26 years and spent 23 of those years as a volunteer firefighter. Among the worst blazes he responded to was the Humboldt Fire in 2008, which burned 23,000 acres in three days, he recalled.

The Camp Fire burned three times that in 24 hours.

“I don’t have much hope that the house is there,” Schofield said Friday from a friend’s house in Marysville, where his family was staying after evacuating Paradise. “If it was there it would be by the grace of God. It was right in the path of the fire.”

Schofield, a music teacher, was at the middle school campus Thursday morning when the district announced it was shutting down all Paradise schools. He turned on a radio to learn more about the fire and heard that his home was in an area being evacuated.

Students whose parents couldn’t get to them quickly enough were put on buses or in teachers’ own cars and taken to a shelter in Chico. Schofield called his wife and 15-year-old son, both at the high school, and told them to meet at their house on Woodglen Drive. They were packing when someone knocked on their door and told them the fire was close.

They left with their three dogs and two rabbits around 9:15 a.m., leaving behind keepsakes such as photos, school awards and Schofield’s collection of nearly 300 fire engine replicas. The first one had been a gift from his grandmother when he was 4.

“You can’t replace the awards or the photos, you can’t replace all of that,” he said. “But we have insurance on everything else.”

Santa Rosa Fire Capt. Jack Thomas, who on Thursday led a strike team against the Camp Fire, couldn’t help but have flashbacks to last year’s deadly Wine Country fires, which flattened entire neighborhoods.

“When I got here, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what we saw in Santa Rosa,’” he said. “We got churches down, a mobile home park burned and a retirement home halfway involved. It’s really the same situation.”

Chronicle staff writers Lizzie Johnson and Kimberly Veklerov contributed to this report.

Kurtis Alexande, Sarah Ravani and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:,, Twitter: @KurtisAlexander @SarRavani @ErinAllday